I’m right and I know it

Though I enjoy a robust sparring with my ideological opponents, there are times I have to step away from the fray in the interest of preserving a valued relationship. I have to back away from being “right” to being a friend. But why does it have to be this way? What are the factors that push a dialog to the brink of ill will?

Of all the landmines that threaten progress in dialogue, perhaps the greatest is our failure even to attempt to see things from our opponent’s point of view. And perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this failure is our tendency to assert our respective beliefs as matters of fact, without first convincing our sparring partners of their validity.

To illustrate this tendency, I’ll draw from my own history of failure. Though it happened over a decade ago, I remember as if it were yesterday a conversation I was having with a young-earth creationist friend in which I made an unqualified assertion that the earth is very old, much older than the 10,000-year limit he placed on its age. Sure, I started by reciting some scientific arguments I thought should convince him of my position, thereby giving me (in my mind) grounds to make the blanket pronouncement, “The earth IS old” [subtext: “whether you like it or not”]. It didn’t help matters when I told him I was 100% certain of that fact. Not 90% certain, not 99% certain, not 99.999% certain, but 100% certain.

It has only slowly and relatively recently dawned on me how counterproductive it can be to act like this, nor have I fully learned my lesson. It’s just so tempting to underline and bold and italicize my position by stating it with the utmost confidence, as if I couldn’t possibly be mistaken. If only I can get my opponent to see how confident I am in making my assertions, maybe he’ll internally compare his lesser confidence with my greater confidence and so begin to doubt his own hold on his position. But what if the opponent comes back with an equal and opposing confidence in his view? Perhaps both sparring partners really do inwardly share the same confidence, in which case Newton’s 3rd law will have its way, like two equally massive locomotives cruising at equal and opposite velocities ramming each other on the tracks. Not pretty. Alternatively, perhaps one of the sparring partners really is as confident as she projects, while the other is not quite as confident but feels the need to project an equal degree of confidence so that the other’s locomotive doesn’t push her locomotive back when they collide. Or perhaps neither party is as confident as they project but must maintain the illusion of supreme confidence for fear of appearing weak. And so it becomes a game of chicken, a bluffing game to defend one’s position at all costs. This projection of confidence, this strutting, too often pushes otherwise friendly exchange of views to the brink of enmity.

This posturing can take both defensive and offensive forms and can become a two-way game. For example, if, after presenting their case, one of the two parties can’t understand how the other party still can’t see the light, it can be tempting to call the other’s bluff: “You don’t REALLY believe that; you’re just bluffing to avoid having to come to terms with your unsupportable position.” This shrewd tactic serves not only to elevate one’s own confidence but to diminish (at least in the mind of the one calling the bluff) the confidence of the opponent, thus doubly tipping the confidence game of chicken in one’s favor. But it’s also devastating to the relationship, as it challenges the integrity of the opponent, essentially coloring him as a liar. Once that happens, any further dialog becomes difficult at best.

The psychological experience of complete confidence in one’s position is exceedingly common, even for those who are mistaken. Recently I listened to a lecture series called Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills by neurologist Steven Novella. I was particularly struck by how easy it is for our memories to be contaminated while remaining 100% confident that we remember past events correctly. It’s not something we do consciously; our minds simply invent new details or distort real ones, resulting in false memories. This is why eyewitness testimony is so often problematic: witnesses exhibit full confidence in their memories but are often nonetheless mistaken. It’s not that they’re bluffing; they do believe they’re correct when in fact they’re not. This being the case, I consider it both charitable and realistic to give others the benefit of the doubt when they say they believe something that seems incomprehensible to us, rather than assuming a bluff. It’s still possible they’re bluffing, but I’ve learned not to assume it.

Looking back at my behavior in debating my young-earth creationist friend, I now realize that instead of saying outright, “The earth is old,” a more productive, friendly approach would have been to say, “I’m convinced the earth is old, and here are some reasons why.” This doesn’t mean I’m any less confident in the antiquity of the earth than if I were to assert it point blank, but it demonstrates more respect to my sparring partner when I explain my reasons rather than asserting the conclusion. And here’s the hard part: even AFTER explaining my reasons,  I will now still refrain from asserting my conclusion unless and until my opponent adopts my position. This is difficult, especially when I have that psychological experience of complete confidence in my position, along with just about every practicing field geologist in the world today. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. But at least we keep our friendship intact.

Lest you think I’m being entirely altruistic in backing down from a more assertive stance, I’m looking for a trade of sorts. Both skeptics and believers issue their fair share of blanket pronouncements in dialog rather than acknowledging differences of opinion and prefixing their pronouncements with simple softeners like, “I’m convinced of a because of x, y, and, z“. I’d like to think (perhaps I’m naive) that if we could all tone our bravado down a notch, we could engage in a more productive, charitable exchange of ideas.

Accordingly, I’ll aim to avoid unqualified pronouncements like the following when addressing those who disagree:

  • We share a common ancestor with all other living creatures
  • It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that). [Quote from Richard Dawkins in the New York Times, 1989]
  • The Universe is 13.7 billion years old
  • Jesus is not coming back
  • Jesus is Dead [The title of a book by Robert M. Price]
  • You believe because it gives you hope for life after the grave
  • You believe because it gives you meaning in life
  • You believe because it gives you a foundation to impose your moral views on others

And in return, I would hope my sparring partners would avoid unqualified statements like the following when engaging with those like me who don’t accept them:

  • Jesus is coming back
  • God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life
  • You don’t really believe in evolution; it’s too unbelievable
  • Deep down, you really believe in God and in the Gospel; you’re just not admitting it
  • Jesus rose from the dead
  • Atheists just want to get God off their back so they live their lives free of him
  • Atheists are angry at God
  • You have no reason to be moral if you don’t believe in God
  • You can have no basis for logic if you don’t believe in God
  • Life can have no true meaning without God
  • You’re going to be in for a surprise when you wake up before God after you die
  • Many prophecies in the Old Testament where were supernaturally fulfilled in Jesus’ life
  • Homosexuality is a sin against God
  • Moses wrote the Pentateuch
  • Paul wrote all the epistles ascribed to him in the New Testament

Let me be clear: I am most emphatically NOT saying believers should avoid making statements like the above. What I am suggesting is that, when addressing nonbelievers, they should preface such statements with the simple modifier, “I believe that…”. For example, “I believe that atheists have no reason to be moral, and here’s why” is a whole lot less provocative than, “Atheists have no reason to be moral.” If you’re a believer and you don’t appreciate the difference, then consider the following two statements: “Jesus is dead,” and, “I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, and here’s why.” Which one do you prefer?

No doubt there will be those on my side of the fence who will object to the suggestion that we add any disclaimers to propositions that enjoy a scientific consensus, rather than stating them as matters of fact. For example, if I were to encounter a geocentrist who believes that the sun goes around the earth, or an animist who believes that infectious diseases are caused by evil spirits rather than by microbes, or a flat earth believer, should I risk watering down the truth by saying, “I am convinced the earth is not flat,” rather than stating unequivocally, “The earth is not flat!”, or by averring, “I am convinced the earth is old,” rather than plainly stating, “The earth is old!”

I understand and share this concern, and I’m also concerned that I’ll be perceived as a post-modernist who holds that all truths are relative and simply “true for me” or “true for you.” To be sure, I would prefer to just say, “The earth is old; now get over it!” rather than to qualify my statement in the interest of improved relations. But if the facts are on our side, arguing our case respectfully with the facts will stand a better chance of getting through to the other side than deliberately bludgeoning them with a take-no-prisoners pronouncement.

This modest proposal is rooted in the ideal of putting oneself in the shoes of another. It’s also rooted in mutual respect, whereby when one party says they believe something, we take them at face value rather than imputing the worst of motives on them. Some atheists assume that all believers are willfully ignorant or that they really don’t believe what they say they do. Some believers assume the same about all atheists. I’m convinced our mistaken beliefs are rooted more in the foibles of our imperfect brains than in a willful self-deception over which we have conscious control. I’ve lived on both sides of the divide: I know what it feels like to be convinced that evolution is untrue, for example, but I also now know what it feels like to be convinced that it’s true. If you say you don’t believe evolution is true, I’ll take you at your word; I’ve been there. If you tell me I don’t really believe evolution is true, then we have nothing further to say to each other, especially if you have never lived the experience of being convinced of the truth of evolution.

I’ll speak frankly here: some–certainly not all–believers with whom I’ve engaged in conversation have demonstrated not the slightest willingness to put themselves in my shoes. They assume my motives are dark. They know that morality can have no foundation without God, and they are not in the least interested in learning the basis for my morality or for that of millions of humanists the world over. They know that the complexity of life could not have risen by chance, and they’re not in the least interested in truly knowing the evidence that has lead to a consensus on evolution (which is based not merely on chance) among biologists. And many atheists are no less ugly toward believers who don’t bend in the face of their assertions.

What if we were all willing to step back a bit from our machismo, from our need to assert, from our need to blame? Would this not increase the chances for a dialog of mutual respect in which we’re willing to show some humility, acknowledge the possibility we could be mistaken, open ourselves to learning something new from others, and refuse to impute the worst possible motives on our ideological opponents?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “I’m right and I know it

  1. Ken, I think you’re right that it’s important to keep a common frame of reference with someone you’re having a serious discussion with. “The earth is 13.7 billion years old,” is not something you can share with a young earther. But “I (Ken or Kurt) believe that the earth is 13.7 billion years old” is something you can agree on. Of course the discussion isn’t going to move forward unless there are some facts you can agree on, like the red-shift from other galaxies. Merely trading statements about what we believe won’t help.

  2. charles

    I needed to read this today. I really want to speak the way you have described, as it is far more productive. I’ve been moving towards being less persuasive by insisting I am right. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Dean Gilliland

    “I will not attack your doctrines nor your creeds if they accord liberty to me. If they hold thought to be dangerous – if they aver that doubt is a crime, then I attack them one and all, because they enslave the minds of men.”
    – Robert Ingersoll

    “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”
    ― Daniel C. Dennett

    One of the gifts of The Enlightenment is the idea that we put matters of State in one box and matters of Religion in another and give enough credit to humankind to trust they will be able to continue to see the benefits of keeping them separate.

    Dean Gilliland

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